Kill Bill: The Revenge Film as Feminist FantasyPosted: November 11, 2011
So, here’s the paper I recently presented at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association. It focuses on the revenge narrtive in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I hope you enjoy.
Kill Bill: The Revenge Film as Feminist Fantasy
In Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” the main character of The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) spends two films seeking and getting revenge on people who have wronged her. The idea of revenge is not gender specific. However, a woman fighting a variety of enemies to be reunited with her child is a decidedly female story. Female warrior characters can be found throughout the arts. A small sample include; Diana the Huntress of Greek literature, Wonder Woman in comic books, Arwen of “The Lord of the Rings” series, and various female warriors of Chinese folklore. But, these characters are usually seen as saviors and protectors of oppressed people. The Bride, however, is a different case. She is in the line of the Avenging Angel. The Avenger is a character that seeks justice and retribution. This is a more modern and cinematic character. In films like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Ms. 45” and the character of Catwoman in comics and film, the characters are raped and beaten by thuggish male characters. These women go about killing and torturing male oppressors who have hurt them and others. The Bride in “Kill Bill” falls more in line with the avengers. She has been robbed of her child, raped, and her family killed. This all leads to seek retribution, ending with the Bill of the title.
All of this is exciting cinema. But, is it feminist? Many people believe that having a female character that is assaulted and humiliated effectively negates any empowering that the act of revenge garners. The brutality that the female characters endure is another form of the abuse that men inflict on women. But, this ignores an important aspect of the work. There is much brutality and violence inflicted on the women but, in the case of “Kill Bill” specifically, the revenge segments of the film are 90% of the film and the brutality is only 10%. The female revenge film gives female viewers a character to cheer on and many times has men cheering for the woman to engage in her vengeance. This aspect is as important as the revenge. By having men cheer the murder of other men; the female character becomes the stand-in for all who have been victimized. This feminization of the male viewer works to radicalize the male viewer and gain his empathy.
The attitude of revenge films falls in the realm of feminism called post-feminism. “Constructed as a response against the notion of women as victims, post-feminism argues instead for a return to the tenets of feminism that view women as politically equal to and even sexually dominant over men.” (Hua, 66) Although in many revenge films the characters are brutalized, in the end they become dominant over many of the people who have exploited them. In “Kill Bill”, The Bride aka Black Mamba aka Beatrix Kiddo is a member of the DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) this group is a multi-ethnic and gendered group of assassins who work for master killer Bill. The group, at the time of the films, have gone in various directions and have vastly different lives. During this time, the bride has been in a coma because of their attack on her wedding day. She is raped repeatedly while in her coma. When she awakens her first act of revenge is to slit the tendons of the orderly and proceed to smash his head with a steel door. Her first act of vengeance completed, she begins on her list of ex-coworkers and current enemies. The character of The Bride is physically weak from her coma state but can still avenge her abuse. This is a post-feminist look at the damsel in distress. The Bride is physically atrophied but her skills and intelligence are intact. Women are more powerful than the abuse they suffer. The Bride is a mirror opposite of the character of Ms. 45 in Abel Ferrera’s film of the same name. Ms. 45 is mute and is raped because she does not have a literal voice. By the end of the film she has killed her rapists, her lecherous boss, and a group of sexists with her gun. Ms. 45 uses the fact that men never expect her confront their abuse to exact her revenge. The Bride has the opposite situation. She must get her body back to gain the revenge she needs to exact.
The Bride’s main goal is two-fold. She wants to kill her ex-lover and boss Bill and she wants to become a mother to her daughter. The avenger has a dual role. The killing and revenge are in the service of her true role as mother. The mother/warrior is an ancient symbol that is found with Goddesses like net (mother of Ra), Artemis (huntress and patron of Childbirth), or the symbol Mother Earth. The role of mother is of the utmost importance and the mother must be strong both physically and mentally. Beatrix works her way through her list, trains extensively, and travels to Japan to obtain the almost mystical Hantoro Hanzai sword. She is on a mission to achieve her role as mother and take care of her daughter while leaving the bodies of her enemies in her wake. “The mother goddess gives life but takes it away. Lucretius says, ‘the universal mother is also the common grave.’ She is morally ambivalent, violent as well as benevolent. The sanitized pacifist goddess promoted by feminism is wishful thinking.” (Paglia, 43) Camille Paglia’s concept of the mother goddess is personified by Beatrix. She wants to nurture her daughter that has been kept from her, but she must also find revenge for the abuses done to her. Her ex-friends and co-workers were a part of the circle of support that most women have in their lives and it has been perverted. The support became a group of enemies that worked to destroy her. She must come back from this betrayal to achieve her ultimate goal. “The Bride, or the Woman with No Name, seeks to enter the world of normalcy and domesticity with her unborn child but it is savagely cut down by Bill, the personification of violence and capital, at her wedding. In getting her revenge against all of those who partook in the massacre, she systematically destroys her identity in order to become ‘Mommy’.” (White, 63) This goal is one that places the woman at the top of the pyramid. She is the goddess and those below her must feel her wrath for trying to rob her of her heir.
As The Bride dispatches her enemies, she uses a sword. In most, revenge fantasy the woman does not use her own hands. She is given a replacement phallus. Ms. 45 uses a gun, Catwoman has a whip, and The Bride obtains the strongest samurai blade known to man, the Hantoro Hanzai sword. In fiction, women typically must add an appendage to channel their aggression. The Bride’s use of the sword is her appendage, or phallus, that she can wield to ultimately kill her male oppressor. The influence of the male in every aspect of life mutates into the female. To obtain power and become the dominant figure the woman must take a phallus and use it before gaining her ultimate goal. “We see the notion that we live in a phallocentric society, in which men’s sexuality and power are dominant, can be understood in both Freudian and Marxist terms. (And Gaines points out it is the male spectator who must be the focus of the analysis.)” (Berger, 31) The Bride must defeat her male oppressor. But, what makes her final battle with Bill so interesting is that she does not use her sword. She ends up killing Bill by engaging in hand to hand combat. Unlike other avengers, she drops her weapon and fights him with her hands. She sheds the phallus and overcomes him with her body. Unlike the stereotype of the female who must exact revenge through the use of a body extension. Their knives, guns, and whips become the power they have to use to overcome their oppressors. They must become more male to gain their vengeance. The Bride, conversely, must shed the phallus to become the victor. To kill Bill she lays down her sword and uses her hands. She loses her extension and fully becomes the female warrior to defeat her enemy.
Before she battles Bill she must engage in combat with her ex-friends. The three that she fights alone are all female. In each battle both women engage in a mixture of sword play and hand to hand combat. It creates a mixture of male and female forces at work in their battles. “The grace and composure of Uma Thurman (The Bride), Lucy Liu (O-ren Ishii), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver) and Viveka A. Fox (Vernita Green) are really what make this movie work. Regal in appearance and amazingly deft in their physically demanding roles, the women also succeed in imparting a genuine sense of humor to their characters. This stroke is pivotal, for it suggests that the violence they perpetuate is less a sign of moral reprehensibility than a gesture of self-actualization.” (Morales, 35) In these battles the women fight as brutally as any male characters and use a variety of tools in their arsenal. The women fight each other in a way typically reserved for male combat in cinema. The women that Beatrix battles are obstacles in her way to fighting her ultimate betrayer Bill. Like much of life, the women engage in the hard work of life while the patriarchy is behind the scenes. Her first two battles are with Vernita and O-ren. Both women have taken roles outside of the system. Vernita is now a mother and O-ren is the head of the male dominated Yakuza. Like The Bride they are outside of the patriarchy that Bill dominates. Her last battle before Bill is with Elle Driver. Elle is the only female still working in the service of Bill and she is the most stereotypically female of the assassins. She is petty, jealous, and uses stereotypically female fighting moves (biting, hair pulling, etc.). Her fight with The Bride is the most personal and brutal. The Bride must defeat Elle by attacking her in the most brutal way possible. Beatrix pulls out Elle’s one eye; the other was already dispatched by her kung-fu trainer, and leaves her flailing around near the highly poisonous Black Mamba snake. Elle is left alone, blind and wandering waiting for her death. This is highly symbolic of a woman who is still tethered to the patriarchy. The anti-feminist woman is left flailing and alone waiting to be devoured by the patriarchy. She is literally blinded but it is a symbol of femininity that is blinded to the destructive power of the patriarchy. Elle has given her whole life to Bill only to die alone and without his support. She is left alone to suffer while Bill is safe because of her actions. By defeating all her enemies The Bride is able to have the control and autonomy to defeat her true enemy, Bill. The Bride has to finish her battle by defeating the patriarchy’s female ideal. She has defeated traditional femininity to achieve her goal of destroying the male power structure.
The film “Kill Bill” represents a changing in female representations in the media. More and more television shows, films, books, and even musical acts are taking the idea of female and going back to ancient, feral roots. “Women are becoming more like men. This is what a collection of cultural happenings circulating our media might suggest. It is a mood in representation that comes with the false claim that the trend of women-acting-like-men is a feminist expression. As if feminism was only ever about playing with the toys just like the big boys.” (Young, 1) This idea is only one aspect. Yes, The Bride does use samurai swords to defeat her enemies. But, there is much more to her story than just violence. She is a female warrior who is looking to resume her rightful place as the mother to her child. She must defeat female barriers and her male oppressor. She is violated and abused by the patriarchal system that views women as objects to use for their pleasure and bidding. The Bride must confront all of those who placed her in the vulnerable position of coma to be abused. She must also work to destroy the corrupting influence that Bill has placed over the females in his life. The Bride works to save her daughter and end the cycle of the destructive patriarchy.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films are a response to the patriarchal culture. Beatrix, as a character, is an avenger. Her ultimate goal is to destroy the corruption that the male brings into female relationships. She must use her skills, physicality, and training to defeat Bill. By battling other females to save her daughter, Beatrix is the mother bear protecting her cub. She uses all her skills and her true power as a woman to defeat her oppressor. Post-feminist thought creates the character of The Bride. Her skills and ultimate goal of motherhood place her in the classical tradition of the Greek and Roman goddesses. She strives to obtain the goal of freedom from the patriarchy. She succeeds by using her powers as a woman. She is a true feminist representation of power.
Berger, Arthur Asa. Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts. Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995.
Hua, Julietta. “Gucci Geishas and Post-Feminism.” Women’s Studies in Communication 32.1 (2009): 63-88.
Morales, Xavier. “Kill Bill: Beauty and Violence.” The Harvard Law Record (2003): 34-35.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
White, Eileen. “From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western (Book Review).” Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2006): 61-63.
Young, Emma. “Sticks and Stones may Break Bones but Not Stereotypes.” The Sydney Morning Herald October 27, 2003 2003, sec. Arts:.